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On bringing the ‘content factory’ model to Africa

February 17, 2011  »  Business & WebNo Comment

Translate or create originally? Paid or unpaid writers? Languages? Is it truly necessary?

Local content remains a hot topic in the African digital space. Although social media has recently eclipsed traditional web articles in terms of perceived usefulness, the reality is that simple how-to guides are more practical for the average African. After all, social media revolutions can’t occur every week. Common anecdotes of useful online content are those of the farmer who uses the Internet to boost crop yield or the ill patient who seeks modern forms of medical treatment. Social media can certainly address these concerns, and perhaps resonates better with Africa’s oral communication paradigm. However, information shared strictly via social media often lacks credibility.

For example, say a patient requests help from an expert via a social platform. The expert will need to manually address each response rather than publishing the response once and then having multiple patients find the knowledge via online search tools.

Traditional content production, although initially demanding more upfront resources, will ultimately provide the most efficient relay of useful information. And it integrates well with social media. The so-called “content factory” involves three basic steps:

  • freelance content creators write articles on in-demand topics
  • the articles are then edited and digitally published
  • the publisher earns revenue from banner ads and syndication

In the United States, Demand Media, a publicly traded company, has overseen the creation of hundreds of thousands of articles (mainly on eHow.com) and videos over the course of only a few years. It’s hard to say if a similar business model would succeed given the online landscape in Africa. However, with increasing broadband penetration, increasing Internet efficacy, and a solidifying African digital advertising scene, perhaps now is the time for a daring entrepreneur to take his or her chances. Even a failure would leave the continent with useful articles for years to come.

At this point, the information is readily available to the public and will not need to be re-created on the fly. In the interest of time, few African language online articles are written from scratch. Instead, English language articles are often translated. Google and Wikipedia both lead efforts to create accessible web content in African languages, which begs to ask:

Is the translation method effective?

As of early 2011, the rate of Wikipedia article translation is succumbing to an increasing demand. Google’s Community Translation program has made inroads, but has been small in scale (some 300 volunteers over a short timespan). Similarly, African Wikipedia initiatives often rely on select universities, and projects only last for a matter of weeks or months. At the end of the day, even if these initiatives succeed in scale, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a how-to guide. Even if every Wikipedia article was translated into local African languages, there would still be a need for supplemental local content generation. The issue here is that most articles on the web are copyrighted. As such, a rote translation is not legally possible. However, in reality, who can possible tell if an eHow article is translated into Swahili or Amharic?

Is paid user-generated content viable?

A report on Google’s Community Translation acknowledges the potential need for incentives, potentially in the form of long-term compensation. An entrepreneur does not need vast sums of money to organize an online publishing operation. A bare bones effort could survive on a manager, a handful of writers, an editor, a developer, a handful of computers, and an Internet connection. Sustaining the operation poses more of a challenge: online ad revenue is hard to come by unless there is a strong user base. Syndication will only succeed under similar circumstances. Two options remain: a subscription model where users pay for quality content, or the volunteer method that Google and Wikipedia maintain.

All financial gain aside, challenges remain:

  • Finding competent writers who also have e-skills. Maybe less-than-technically-competent writers will suffice for Africa’s content needs? As in, perhaps good content is more important than proper grammar and syntax?
  • Computer & Internet access – One benefit of this operation is that writers do not individually need Internet access to produce web articles. Assuming a team of writers is assembled in one location, they can share a single Internet connection to upload content for publishing.
  • How to create content for under-represented languages? In terms of Wikipedia translation, much attention has been given to Swahili and Amharic, but what about less common languages? Content creation for these groups cannot be financially viable and must be undertaken on a volunteer basis…for now.
  • Communities must want and support digital content. Governments can at least indirectly support content creation by providing e-skills training and facilities.
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